Devilish Laird Cregar (1945) 🇺🇸

Devilish Laird Cregar (1945) 🇺🇸

November 15, 2021

Bold, Bad (Bluffing) Cregar

He’d have you believe he’s a hard guy! Here’s a sharp pen impression of a rather fascinating fellow

by Barbara Berch

Once Laird Cregar was a mountainous creature aged twenty-seven who looked forty-seven, who stood six feet three inches tall, weighed three hundred pounds, played devils and bullfighters, cops and pirates for the screen, and was working himself up to be a younger and sassier man-who-came-to-dinner. Then Cregar, whose very few remaining friends call him Sammy, became the Man Who Went on a Diet, and now his barbed ire is strictly from hunger.

Cregar is bringing all his weight to bear in his struggle against humanity, and latest weighings-in at-testing, he may yet come out top man. To date, he’s still a baby bogey, his detractors insist, but he’s the most promising of the younger crop since Orson Welles threw in the towel and joined a circus.

He lives by the theory that nine people out of ten are bores — and he’s not shy to point a finger at the offending nine. Individuals are tolerable, he says; mobs are impossible. Thus, he has no use for unfortunates in groups of more than three at a time.

Not long ago he upstaged a syndicated columnist on the set of a picture in which he is starring because the columnist ignored him on another set, two years ago, in which he was only featured. He asked for his release from Twentieth Century-Fox during the filming of “The Black Swan” because they kept him waiting two days, fully costumed in corsets and shoulder curls, after sending out a rush call for him. He spiels satirical versions of the holy Academy Award dinners, mimics the winners mercilessly, and dismisses even his chosen dining companions as the “dullest people imaginable.”

He wallows in distemper. He refused to eat at the studio commissary for six months because the management accused him of hogging two cups of coffee during rationing. Cregar was indignant enough to spill the extra coffee — a gift from a nearby abstainer — surge past three weeping, head-shaking waitresses, one hysterical hostess, and the irate manager-in-chief, and eat at the Beverly Brown Derby regularly until the commissary manager made a formal apology. At the insistence of Mr. Cregar ‘s assembled directors who could no longer afford to wait production while Laird ate in angry splendor down the street. They’re still fighting it out, however, with Laird — forty minutes late for shooting last week — because the commissary hostess “forgot” to inform him — on the temporary receiving end.

In an unexpected surge of filial love recently, Cregar imported his mother, plus his aunt and two brothers, to come live with him in a house in Santa Monica he couldn’t afford anyway. Three days later Laird clashed with Mom (a decisive character named Bess) , moved out, checked off the experiment as “costly and unwise,” and found a one-man house in the middle of a lemon grove where he and his notable hulk have to crawl in sideways. With five miles of good beach land between them. Laird is a good son again, editing Mother Cregar’s autobiography a chapter at a time, and contributing notably to her support. So notably, that when he wanted to buy a house of his own he found only six thousand dollars left in his bank account, although he collects $2,000 a week regularly from his grumbling bosses.

Cregar is in Hollywood through a Rotary Club fluke which financed his trip out from Philadelphia and set him up to a course of lessons in acting at the Pasadena Community Playhouse. Cregar, not in training to be indebted to a Rotarian, has paid back every cent. “I was planning to be the writing white hope of the theater, not the acting gray hope of the screen,” he counters, trying to talk away his Rotary backing, and the spirit of brotherhood, in general.

Cregar was big and jolly and kind at Pasadena, and came out of the two-year course marked as the Second Most Likely to Succeed, following a romantic juvenile, at 165 pounds, who came out first. Right after graduation Cregar ran out of money so he moved into the back seat of a parked sedan and spent his nights sleeping pretzel style. Mornings he toured the Hollywood casting offices and came away with the impression that he was a “grotesque type.” “Too big, too fat, too young, too old — too fresh!”

Oh.’’ Cregar forthwith decided he’d have to swing a part for himself if he was serious about keeping his bulk at its usual flabby mark. He scooped up the coast rights of the play “Oscar Wilde,” found an ice-cream manufacturer with a yen for the theater to put up the money, a jobless Mack Sennett man to direct, and the trio went right out to make history on Hollywood Boulevard. “I was magnificent.” Cregar says, soberly. The ice-cream man has long since gone back to Iowa, and the dairy business, and the Mack Sennett man is still looking around for a job.

Cregar was so good as “Oscar Wilde” that the studios which had previously dismissed him as “grotesque” now submitted so many offers that Sammy could say no to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with Tracy, Beery, and Arnold to buck; no to Warners, with Sidney Greenstreet, Alan Hale, Huston, and Claude Rains around before actually signing with Twentieth Century-Fox, top-heavy with musical comedy favorites.

Right after Cregar finished one of his fat character parts, something he describes more accurately as “shmaltzy,” in “Ten Gentlemen From West Point,” he turned his eyes to the stage again, foaming over the possibilities of playing the starring role in a West Coast version of “The Man Who Came To Dinner.” A few days of mulling over the growling Sheridan Whiteside and Cregar was ready to open up shop on Hollywood Boulevard again, with or without the dairy industry behind him. A month later he was playing to overflow business.

With the theater-going West Coast clutching him to its rock-bound bosom, Cregar watched from his prop wheelchair, noted well, then sped out to Burbank between the Wednesday matinee and evening performances to insist upon playing the Whiteside role in the film Warners was going to make of the play. He was laughed off the lot and resentenced to his Delineations-in-Technicolor back at Fox. “Now MGM is making ‘The Picture Of Dorian Grey,’ and they tested everyone in sight for the Oscar Wilde part. Do you think they even asked to test me for it.’’ Cregar fumes illustratively. “No!”

Cregar is one hundred pounds lighter now than he was either as Wilde or Whiteside — result of a bird-like diet, thyroid shots, and six weeks of lying flat on his back in a hospital. His new waistline mellowed his fife for a short while. Right after the pounds oozed off he played an understanding devil in “Heaven Can Wait,” pronounced, moon-eyed, that he had fallen in love with Dorothy McGuire, courted her with boxes of lilies and pails of fruit, and was reasonably happy on seven hundred calories a day. Then they cast him as Jack the Ripper in a picturization of “The Lodger,” buried his snappy new figure under a spreading false blond moustache, and Dorothy McGuire married another man. Cregar gave vent to his grief in a mashed-potato binge. He ate mountains of the stuff, his hips began to sag familiarly, and he was gorging down three and four pieces of cheesecake for dessert again. Now he’s out of the hospital again after being shot with thyroid, and fiddling around with lettuce leaves and cottage cheese.

Cregar’s originally a dandy from Pennsylvania Scotch stock, right oft Philadelphia’s Main Line. The first few years of life he lived quietly in the valley of the giants — brother to five other oversize heavyweights, and son to a cricket champ hitting the six-feet, four-inch mark, and weighing well into the two hundreds somewhere. ‘Shorty’ Cregar was Laird’s youngest brother who could stretch himself to no more than six-feet, one-and-one-half inches.

With the death of his father, and the dissolving of the family fortune. Laird, after a childhood of private schools, a year at England’s Winchester Academy, and another year at Philadelphia’s Episcopal Academy, had to go to work.

Pride, however, never interfered with the eating habits to which mother had accustomed him. With the topsy-turvy in their living arrangements, Cregar took a day job selling books at Gimbel’s department store, and doubled in brass (knuckles) at night, working as a bouncer in a movie house.

Cregar used to sit down to seven-course dinners, eat well and hearty, wipe his contented mouth, then order the whole works all over again. Now he keeps his mind off food by taking piano lessons, singing lessons, by writing ballads, and musical comedies with ghoulish undertones.

But he still needs another five years to turn into the full-scale Hollywood churl he’s grooming himself to be. To date, he can’t quite have old ladies fired when they steal his best scenes, nor poison his leading lady’s pet chow when it walks all over his dressing room rug, nor make for New York in a steaming rage because he’s mad at his studio. To begin with, he’d have to reckon with Mother Bess if he took to beating old women; secondly, he’s still young enough to fall in love with all his leading ladies; and thirdly, he can’t zoom away to New York when temper dictates, because he can’t afford it yet.

Even in handling the autograph situation, “he has much to learn. He roars “no” as soon as he’s asked for his signature but it doesn’t carry the firm ring of finality or the sting of fire-breathing venom. It won’t, either, as long as he follows up his booming “no’s” by biting his lip (for being weak) , reaching for pad and pencil, scrawling his name in his very best script, and hoping the kids aren’t trading three Laird Cregars for one Frank Sinatra!

From top down: before-and-after pictures of Laird Cregar. He reduced 100 lbs.! Left, lining up Faye Marlowe on set of “Hanover Square,” his latest.

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Collection: Screenland MagazineJanuary 1945